Book Expo is a massive event. The floor is crowded with publishers hawking their wares. There’s acres and acres of books. It’s quite an operation really. But whether intentionally or by design, the folks behind the Expo are making it pretty tough to cover this event, especially if you’re a blogger. As Sarah and Ed have mentioned, there is almost no Internet access. Supposedly you can pay $5 an hour for wireless access, or the incredible price of $50 for the day. Everyone is subject to this charge, even those who have press passes. There is a press room (which is where I am right now), but there’s no wireless access there either. Instead there’s three computers with signs posted above them that say “Please limit your time to 15 minutes when others are waiting.” It makes it hard to blog, is all.
The room where we meet is on the fourth floor of an apartment house in Paris, in a district perhaps better left unnamed. It holds a matrimonial bed, a big old wardrobe, and, on a desk, a carafe of tap water and a hinged mirror glazed with spittle. Also present, waving a felt-tip pen like a baton, is a little man with a comb-over the color of boot black on his brow — my French diction teacher. In the early evening and sometimes of a morning, he receives me in the foyer and shakes my hand and I follow him into this bedroom at the rear of the flat, singing out, “Bonjour Madame!” to the guardian wife at the bedroom door who never returns my greeting.
Why a diction teacher? Because delicate French nerves are choqués — shocked! — by the erratic phrasing, intonation, and just plain wrong sounds that émigrés are prone to. An aspiring novelist from New York, I am not an émigré, not yet; but I’m preparing to become one by modeling myself after my literary hero, the Anglo-Canadian writer Mavis Gallant, who arrived in Paris more than 60 years ago already speaking exquisite French. The problem is, I see myself ending up like the unfortunate displaced people who inhabit her fiction: adrift, irrelevant, subject to ridicule, alone. Unless, of course, I can finally shed what’s left of my foreign accent.
Reviewing Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions for The New York Times in 1998, Ms. Gallant deplored the multitude of writers who fancied themselves disciples of the Argentine master: ‘To write like Borges would require reading the same books in early childhood (in his case, everything), seeing the same films in early youth…It would need wide erudition and an imagination set free.’
I knew, of course, that I’d never write as well as Mavis Gallant, not even if I read the same books and saw the same films and drank the same water and took the same vitamins. Would never write a story as wise and sly as “An Alien Flower” or as wise and sly and heartbreaking as “Potter” or even a minor comic delight like “The Assembly,” presented as the minutes of a general meeting — an assembly, they call it — of the apartment owners of a Paris building, convened after the adult niece of one of their number was “intimately molested” by a stranger on a landing. (So perfectly does Mavis Gallant render, in standard English, the pompous double-edged formality of haute bourgeois speech, you feel as though you are reading an account of the characters’ observations in French.) This being the case, I felt I should start modestly and emulate her in some fundamental way. Surely elocution lessons would give me the confidence I needed to follow in her formidable shadow?
According to his promotional materials, Monsieur is the inventor of a form of phonetic notation, a sequence of morphological signs representing the tongue and mouth. Students achieving proficiency in his methods are said to progress from poor articulators to respect-worthy producers of aspirates, uvulars, nasal vowels, and other French phonemes we foreigners tend to mangle. With persistent training, he insists, one can learn to speak without any accent at all!
Ch-a-a—a-r-me. In a high reedy tenor that carries through the open casement and over the noonday clatter of plates and silverware from the apartments across the courtyard, the phonetician stretches the word out like a death gasp. On a sheet of paper, he draws a crocodile. The width of its miniature jaws, he says, represents just how wide the average Parisian opens his mouth every time he articulates a word with the letter “a.” The average American feels ridiculous, affected, trying to do the same, and I understand better why the mirror on the table is slimed with spittle. Nonetheless, we proceed with this exercise until the end of the hour when Monsieur sees me out, conducting me past that wife or whoever she may be, still policing the bedroom door. Could she be a Pole? (As Mavis Gallant explains in “Potter”, “Polish women had always just been or were about to be deserted by their men. At the first rumor of rejection…they gave way at once, stopped combing their hair, stopped making their beds.”) To my cheery farewell, Madame responds with a glare that seems to say, What are you doing here? What the hell are you up to? By now, I’m asking myself the same thing.
It didn’t seem like a fantastical proposition, not at the start, especially since an heiress I was helping with a book project was eager to dispatch me to Paris to meet with her contacts. There, I’d heard, lived a genius phonetician. This man claimed that achieving native-like speech was a matter of mere mechanics, after which, were I to be invited to appear on a talk show like La Grande Librarie to discuss all the novels I have in mind, viewers would say to themselves, “Dis donc! A young Mavis Gallant! What a pleasant change from that English poet they had on last week, setting us on edge with every half-vowel and slack e-aigu.”
On my next visit, Monsieur ushered me in to the flat and scurried ahead, as if to guarantee safe passage. Crossing the sitting room to the bedroom where he awaited me, I offered Madame my gentlest “Good day.” She remained silent.
Installed at his desk, Monsieur said, “Alors, Mademoiselle, have you noticed how we French, unlike our Anglo-Saxon friends, use all the muscles in our face and mouth when speaking? Raise your upper lip toward your nose. When performed correctly, this action will cause the nostrils to flare. Now tip your neck back — a bit more, that’s it — and without slackening the tension, articulate a pure clear U-sound, thinking of a bird gliding up to a high branch.”
In the mirror, I could barely recognize my flaring nostrils and contorted mouth. The diction teacher bounded out of his chair, poured himself a glass of water from the carafe and drained it, then flung back his neck, thrust out his lower jaw and chanted “U, u, u. U u. U. See how it’s done?”
Hèlas, I did not.
Pausing to compose himself, he smiled, baring a set of crocodilian teeth. “Try this. Imagine I’m putting my hands around your throat and forcing you to produce…” To distract him, I fired a question about some obscure point of grammar, making my r’s and t’s especially violent and explosive. Like a dog swerving after a rabbit, he changed course, exclaiming, “Ah! That depends on Monsieur le Verbe,” and lectured me contentedly on that point for the rest of the hour.
On the way home, I stopped at a café and ordered a pot of tea in “proper” French, but my bizarre rictus only spooked the waiter, an old hippie with whom I’d previously enjoyed perfect communication. The incident put me in mind of a scene from a Gallant story “The Captive Niece” (1969), which takes place in a dingy Paris hotel room and has only two characters: an unnamed British newspaperman who, having walked out on his wife and children, is plagued with guilt, also lumbago; and Gitta, the self-absorbed and insecure ingénue who has been his lover since she was 17. When the girl returns to their lair in a state of high excitement after an audition with an influential French theater director, the man realizes she is about to make her next career move.
“Leget wants me,” she said. “I don’t mean for this film, but another next summer. He’s getting me a teacher for French, and another only for French diction. What do you think of that? He said it was a pity I had spoken English all my life, because it’s so bad for the teeth.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if this scrap of hearsay was true, in which case my pursuit might well be doomed. Mavis Gallant, the daughter of an American mother and an Anglo Scottish father, never had any such concerns, having been banished, aged four, to an austere French convent school in Quebec where she effortlessly absorbed French speech and sound patterns. To be consigned to such a place must not have been pleasant, but behold the results! No worrisome plosives or aspirates or nasal vowels, flawless elocution, and, to judge from the author photograph on the front cover of Going Ashore — a collection of mostly out-of-print stories and short satirical pieces — a magnificent set of teeth.
Back at my rented studio, I sped through my elocution exercises (which consisted of repeating, ad infinitum, formulas such as “We must reanimate Charles”) so that I could read more on how foreign languages are acquired. Thus I learned that for most of us, the end of childhood marks the beginning of phonological old age, prior to which it is possible, with enough exposure, to master any language, whether French or Pashto.
Most linguists agree that a person who takes up another language at, say, 18, probably won’t ever entirely succeed at replicating the new sound patterns. (A modern-day Eliza Doolittle, for example, might manage to pass herself off as an English duchess, but in French she would be a duchesse manquée.) “The Joseph Conrad phenomenon,” as this misfortune is known, was named after that novelist’s intractable accent.
And yet scattered throughout the literature are mentions of driven, freakishly gifted late learners — could I be one of them? — who, by dint of sheer will, longing, and countless hours of phonetics lessons, are taken for natives. To extrapolate from my research, the successful conversion of an English sound system into French is a simple matter of creating and storing new language files in long term memory, gaining control of the speech muscles, and abandoning a sense of self by forsaking one’s mother tongue. Voilà! — “deviant phonetic production” shall cease. Surely such an attainment would guarantee admittance to the lowest as well as the most elevated strata of Paris society, with all that might promise in the way of original material for my future novels.
First, however, I really must discipline my “r’s,” which my diction teacher has declared tolerable but too throaty. “To pronounce a nice pure ‘r’-sound, purse your lips and imagine you are a fish,” Monsieur instructed the last time I saw him. “Unless,” he cautioned, “that letter is followed by a vowel, in which case it’s pronounced like ‘e-aigu.’ Conversely, when there’s a consonant before an ‘e,’ the ‘e‘ is silent. But if that ‘e‘ is followed by a double consonant…” He stopped long enough to give me a pitying look.
I’ve forgotten what inspired this detour; all I knew was that once again my “r’s” had been found wanting. And as I listened to his stupefying peroration, it came to me that my efforts to improve myself were folly: if I continued with these lessons, I’d sound less like an almost-native than an outsider trying to scrape acquaintance with the locals through mimicry or arrant imposture. At worst I might become so self-conscious I’d stop speaking altogether. (Oddly enough, I experience a similar feeling of despair every time I re-read Mavis Gallant. If there is a point when admiration for another’s work leaches all the inspiration and energy from one’s own, I had passed that, too.)
Although I still cling to the dream of a golden tongue, there are plenty of other, more pertinent skills I should acquire if I am ever to metamorphose into Mavis Gallant (high literary talent, for example). What the hell was I up to? I even forgot to ask Monsieur if it was true that English rots the teeth. Were all those hours in which I parroted him no more than some misplaced longing to refashion myself in the image of Mavis Gallant? A natural corollary of literary admiration gone wrong? Or were they an attempt to learn how to listen, with her keen ear, to the undertone that thrums beneath every conversation, to the noise between words, to the strange harmonics of the world?
On the way out, I take my leave of Madame. Seated in her raincoat on her window bench, she could be waiting for a bus. She doesn’t reply to my last wave, but no matter, I’ve worked out who she is. She’s a failed student, bewildered into a stunned silence.
Image Credit: Moyan Brenn
Millions readers in the Toronto area should check out the Lit City exhibit at the Market Gallery (second floor of the St. Lawrence Market, on now through the spring, free).As part of the ongoing festivities marking Toronto’s 175th birthday, the Market Gallery, occupying a room that served as council chambers in the mid-late 1800s, marries the visual with the literary. The gallery divides up Toronto neighborhood by neighborhood, presenting paintings and other visual expressions of each particular neighborhood, and pairing the art with excerpts from literary texts.So, there’s a painting of the Viaduct on Bloor Street, paired with an excerpt from Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, which explored the world of the immigrant worker who broke his back building the viaduct in the early part of last century. A painting of Chinatown sits next to an excerpt from a Cory Doctorow story about the neighborhood. Margaret Atwood, Paul Quarrington and Dennis Lee are among the novelists and poets whose works are excerpted and placed in a neighborhood context.It’s fascinating to see literary works take on an alternate existence. Stripped of storyline, stripped of principal characters and themes, the short excerpts here serve a different purpose, a new context. Like the paintings they’re paired with, they provide eloquent commentary on the specific neighborhood.Overhearing my fellow gallery-goers, I discovered that none were extolling the quite evident artistic virtues of the paintings or texts. Instead, they were discussing the depicted neighborhoods themselves, inspired by the excerpts to draw on their own memories, creating there, on the spot, their own sense of community.
The best part of BEA by a longshot was meeting all the people I’ve been corresponding with for so long and whose blogs I’ve been reading for what seems like forever. The LBC party on Friday night was a blast. Many bloggers were there (Most of these folks have pictures and writeups from BEA up so go check them out as they most likely went to many more parties than I did): Ed, Mark of TEV, Sarah of Confessions, Pinky of her Paperhaus, Kassia of Booksquare, Bud of Chekhov’s Mistress, Wendi of the Happy Booker, Matt of The Mumpsimus, Megan of Bookdwarf, Gwenda of Shaken & Stirred, Scott of SlushPile, Lauren of Lux Lotus, Lizzie of The Old Hag, Written Nerd, Madam Mayo, and, unfortunately, Bat Segundo. (If I forgot anyone or if I mistakenly think I met you but I didn’t – hey, it was dark and I’d had a few drinks – let me know.)Some things I learned about my fellow bloggers: Ed is an intrepid gadfly, but Mr. Segundo is a menace; Megan is not as short as I had been led to believe; Gwenda and Kelly Link are the twin queens of a merry band of sci-fi fanatics; while I can say with some certainty that I will never podcast, all the coolest kids are doing it.I also met cool folks at Melville House, Coffee House, McSweeney’s, and lots of other publishers. I met Jason Bitner who put together the very cool book LaPorte, Indiana (which I wrote about a while back). I also picked up copies of The Long Tail by Chris Anderson and Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah along with lots of catalogs, all of which I left at my parents’ house in Maryland because I didn’t want to lug them back on the plane. But all in all it was great to see everybody.
In the darkened Anglican church, separated from a looming early-Victorian tower by an idyllic garden, we summoned the spirits and welcomed the macabre into our tell-tale hearts.Nestled at the bottom of Grange Park, the city’s bustle was a two-minute walk away, but it could have been two-hundred years away as the Luminato arts festival presented “Gothic Toronto: Writing The City Macabre”, an evening of six local authors – among them Ann-Marie MacDonald and Andrew Pyper – reading freshly-commissioned works which shone a black light on Toronto’s neighborhoods.The spirit of Edgar Allan Poe is everywhere in this year’s Luminato festival – this year marking the 200th anniversary of his birth. Earlier in the week, there was another reading of gothic fiction by assorted writers, and an evening with Coraline author Neil Gaiman, reading from his latest – The Graveyard Book. There was also a Poe-inspired cabaret, and “Nevermore” – a Poe-inspired theatre piece.But tonight, as the lights dimmed in St. George the Martyr church, it was all about Toronto-the-sinister. For me, Andrew Pyper’s “When You Were Beautiful” dug deepest. Set on a dodgy stretch of Queen Street West, this short tale of memory and loss was spun with equal parts eeriness and sadness.When the evening ended and I was back walking among the mortals, I could swear there was a disembodied voice whispering in my ear, trying to lure me back into the desperate depths where Toronto’s darkest souls cry for release.
The long and honorable friendship between books and beer was toasted afresh last month when a beer tavern was named after Cormac McCarthy’s sad and funny lowlife novel, Suttree. Book and bar are both located in the city of McCarthy’s boyhood, Knoxville, Tenn.
Suttree’s High Gravity Beer Tavern is owned by the bibliophile husband-wife team of Matt Pacetti and Anne Ford, who have wisely made no attempt to belabor the Suttree connection beyond the name, thus keeping any potential kitsch-making at bay. The tavern is a deep and stylish space with saloon signage, polished wooden floors, an enormous rustic bar cobbled from old floors, and an appealing list of craft beer and wine. The semi-reclusive Cormac McCarthy, who lives in New Mexico, has been told about the new venture and wishes it well.
Suttree follows the story of Cornelius Suttree, a quiet young man who has chosen to renounce his rich, white Roman Catholic background in order to live as a fisherman on the Tennessee River and befriend a fascinating cast of back-alley boulevardiers, each of whom is sketched with tremendous solicitude and humor. Often called “Knoxville’s Dubliners,” Suttree provides an intense, forensic snapshot into Knoxville’s streets and soul. It offers the reader no racy plot or salvific climax, just an uncured slice of life. There are parts of this book that will make you laugh and others that will make your stomach coil in anguish. And while it’s a challenging read, with large slabs of poetic prose and funny words, it also contains the great themes that McCarthy’s more celebrated novels like No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road explore -– faith, violence, old men, death, and individual courage. Sadly, many young Knoxvillians haven’t even heard of the book. Matt has had to fend more than one query on why he’s chosen such an odd name for his bar. But for those who have read and enjoyed it, it’s not hard to see why Suttree has a special place in Knoxville’s heart.
The new bar, in clientele, character, and cuisine (edamame hummus with pita chips), is a far throw from the Huddle, old Sut’s favorite boozer patronized by – prepare yourself for this lovely McCarthyian litany -– “thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.” But is not entirely devoid of textual atmosphere. For one, it’s located on Gay Street, a hip downtown thoroughfare that features frequently and significantly in the book, and on which Suttree’s friend J Bone tells him of the death of his son, whom he has abandoned along with his wife, though we are never really told why. In another nice if unintentional touch, one long wall is painted with giant black tree trunks that recall a strange interlude in the novel when a Suttree in spiritual extremis retreats into a “black and bereaved” spruce wilderness and meets, not Satan, but a deer poacher, with whom he has a conversation that is as absurd as it is profound.
Is that a crossbow?
I’ve heard it called that.
How many crosses have you killed with it?
It’s killed more meat than you could bear.
Matt and Anne have also been asked, hopefully, if their menu has a melon cocktail. The disappointing answer is no. Perhaps this is one crowd-pleasing textual connection that might be worth exploring. The melon has an exalted place in the novel because of a ridiculous but tender scene in which a young botanical pervert call Gene Harrogate steals into the fields by nights, shucks off his overalls, and begins to mount melons in the soil. He does this for several nights till the farmer who owns the melon patch shoots him in the backside. Then, mortified at the memory of the thin boy howling in pain, he brings him an ice-cream in hospital. (This tiny but extraordinary act of kindness reminded me of young Pip in Great Expectations bringing the starving Magwitch a pork pie in the marshes.) Gene ends up in the workhouse where he meets Suttree and attaches himself to him. Together, the rat-faced but likeable felon and the ascetic, grey-eyed Suttree make for a comic but charming Felonious Monk pair. Though Suttree was published in 1979, it is set in America’s decade of conformity and suspicion, the 1950s, and one can easily imagine McCarthy gleefully adding the melon-mounting scene to his already gloriously debauched House Un-American Activities Committee.
Over the years, a Suttree subculture of sorts has sprung up in Knoxville among the small but ardent group of McCarthy aficionados. Local poet Jack Rentfro has written a song based on all the dictionary-dependent words in the book (analoid, squaloid, moiled, and so on); University of Tennessee professor Wes Morgan has set up a website, “Searching for Suttree,” with pictures of buildings and places mentioned in the book; in 1985, the local radio station did a reading of the novel in full; and for many years, Jack Neely, local historian and author, conducted The Suttree Stagger, a marathon eight-hour ramble through downtown interspersed with site-appropriate readings from the text. Last year, the independent bookstore Union Ave celebrated McCarthy’s 78th birthday with book readings, chilled beer, and slices of watermelon. During the party, when Neely read out the majestic, incantatory prologue from Suttree, several people in the audience who had shown up with their hardcover first-editions could be heard murmuring whole baroque lines from memory, and more than one pair of eyes misted over at the last line: “Ruder forms survive.”
Cormac McCarthy was not born in Knoxville. Almost 30 years ago he moved to Texas and then to New Mexico. He’s since turned down every request made by the local Knoxville News Sentinel for an interview, though, to everyone’s stupefaction, this epitome of the anti-media whore showed up on Oprah and answered questions like: “Are you passionate about writing?” Despite his reticence, Knoxville stakes first and undisputed claim to this literary giant, and rightly so. Not merely because this is where Charlie (his birth name) went to school (Knoxville Catholic High School, where he met J Long who became J Bone in Suttree); was first published (in the school magazine); was an altar boy; went to the University of Tennessee (which he dropped out of, twice), met the first of his three wives (a poet); lived with the second (a dancer and restaurateur), and overall spent about 40-odd years of his life (longer than Joyce spent in Dublin), but because Knoxville provided the manure from which his celebrated Southern Gothicism sprang. And no novel reaps a richer, more reeking harvest than Suttree. It is, to gingerly forcep a phrase from its fecal innards, “Cloaca Maxima,” often harrowingly so.
Moonshine and maggots are the holding glue in this book that opens with a suicide and ends with Suttree finding a ripe corpse crawling with yellow maggots in his bed, and whose characters consume gallons of cold beer (Suttree’s drink) and vile, home-brewed whiskey that appears to have been “brewed in a toilet.” How terrific that a bar should be called Suttree’s and what a relief they don’t serve splo whiskey. Drunks dominate this story — a hard-bitten, loyal bunch who look out for one another despite being brutalized by poverty and racism. The ties of community are sacred in the South, and it is this fundamental sense of fellowship that binds these losers. McCarthy is an unsentimental writer, but one can detect him getting slightly moist when he describes how this magnificent string of drunks faithfully visits Suttree when he is ill and broken after his forest wanderings, without a single one of them asking “if what he has were catching.”
Although Suttree is soaked in Knoxville noir, McCarthy’s most personal reference to his childhood city occurs not here but in his most recent novel, The Road. In this despairingly beautiful tale, a father and son, stand-ins for Cormac and his young son for whom he wrote the book, make their way through an almost-destroyed world swirling with ash and ruin. The pair fetch up at the father’s old house in a nameless town that is clearly Knoxville. The boy is afraid of this house with its filthy porch and rotting screens, but the father is drawn in by the phantoms of his childhood. They enter. There is an iron cot, the bones of a cat, buckled flooring. As he stands by the mantelpiece, the father’s thumb passes over “the pinholes from tacks that held stockings forty years ago,” and, suddenly, the warm remembrance of Christmases past washes over him, providing an anguished foil to his current state of homelessness. McCarthy may have scant regard for Proust as a novelist but the Proustian pull of a few pinholes is powerfully demonstrated in this passage.
To Knoxville’s great shame, this house burnt down in 2009 (The childhood home of Knoxville’s only other Pulitzer winner, James Agee, has also long been destroyed). “It was very sad,” says Jack Neely, “but there was some poetry to the fact that in the last few years the house was used by the homeless. I think Cormac McCarthy would have liked that.” Cornelius Suttree would certainly have approved.
Photo courtesy of the author.